Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.05.19

Vincent J. Rosivach, The System of Public Sacrifice in Fourth-Century Athens. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994. Pp. 171. $19.95. ISBN 1-55540-943-1 (pb).

Reviewed by Jie Yuan, Bryn Mawr College.

R. sets out to study three socio-economic aspects of public sacrifice in Athens: "The frequency of sacrifice" (Chap.1), "Supplying the victims" (Chap.2), and "Acquiring the victims" (Chap.3). Public sacrifice is defined as sacrifices offered by the polis or its subunits (demes, tribes, phratries, etc.) and attended by Athenians in their capacity as citizens. R. further limits his study in two respects. First, only sacrifices at which a substantial amount of meat was distributed are studied; thus, piglets and holocausts are excluded.1 Secondly, since the epigraphic evidence comes mainly from the fourth century, R. has so limited his study, taking into account 5th c. evidence only where it supports the 4th c. evidence and excluding later evidence because "the loss of democracy ... affected the system of public sacrifice ..." (p.4).

In Chap.1, R. attempts to answer with some precision the question "how often did the Greeks sacrifice?" In theory, since every Athenian belonged to a tribe, a trittys, a deme, and a phratry (some also belonged to other organizations which offered sacrifices, e.g., gene, thiasoi), the number of sacrifices in a given year equals the total of sacrifices offered by all these organizations. However, the evidence, as usual, is incomplete. From the many cult-related documents, R. has picked out the three nearly complete sacrificial calendars of the demes Erchia, Thorikos, and Marathon, the fragmentary calendar of the Marathonian tetrapolis, the partial calendar of the Salaminioi, and the dermatikon accounts of the polis. These records cover only the polis and three of its subunits.

R. presents each of these documents in synoptic form by month and event, though differences in format force him to define event differently in each case and cast considerable doubt on the resulting total. For Erchia all sacrifices on the same date are considered one event regardless of deity and location2; but for Thorikos, which provides only 2 dates for some 56 sacrifices,3 R. combines each month's sacrifices into a single event unless they are distant from each other, or in honor of the same deity; for Marathon and the Salaminioi R. defines an event as a group of sacrifices bounded by a sum for hierosyna and wood respectively; and for the state, each festival (e.g., Dionysia) is a separate event. The total number of events per year for Erchia is 214 while for Thorikos it is a minimum of 21 separate events, but more likely 24 to 26. The total for Marathon is 18 events for the one year and 23 for the other of the biennial cycle. Thus, the average number of sacrifices in a deme is about 20.5

Moving on to units between the deme and the polis, R. proposes a tentative reconstruction of the Marathonian Tetrapolis calendar (the first column of IG II2 1358) based on the five occurrences of "fourth quarter": one "traditional" annual cycle, a new er annual cycle, followed by two biennial cycles and possibly other quadrennial sacrifices.6 The total for the Tetrapolis, 7 to 10 depending on the year, is far smaller than that of the deme Marathon. The Salaminioi calendar lists 8 events, paid for by the genos' land holdings at Porthmos.7 From these two examples, R. concludes that the extant evidence, though scant, is consistent with the view that units between the deme and the polis sacrificed less often than the deme.

On the polis level R. makes a distinction -- developed further in Chap. 2 and 3 -- between two types of sacrifices: those at which meat was distributed to "a relatively small number of participants", and those at which "a sufficiently large number of victims was sacrificed to distribute meat to the general populace or to a significant portion thereof".8 (p.47) R. excludes the first type on the ground that not much meat was consumed on such occasions and identifies the second type with the 15 sacrifices in the dermatikon accounts (IG II2 1496) plus the one sacrifice to Artemis Agrotera mentioned by Herodotus. Hence, R. concludes that there were 16 annual events on the polis level.

In conclusion, R. tallies up the number of events on the various levels, 16 from the polis, 20 from the deme, and 5 to 10 from other organizations, and arrives at a minimum of 40 to 45 occasions (1 per 8/9 days) at which the Athenian could participate in a sacrifice. This figure shows that public sacrifice was "at least potentially, a major source of meat for the average citizen." (p.67)

Chap.2 addresses the question who supplied the animals. R. begins by noting that there is no evidence that there were public-owned flocks, and assumes that the polis and its subunits purchased the victims from private individuals. Before tackling the nature of the meat market, R. makes the observation that since animals (except pigs) were never raised solely for their meat but for the wool and milk they produced, usually only the young or old animals, which would be culled from the herd anyway, were sacrificed. Furthermore, animals were not killed except for religious purposes. R.'s evidence for this is the fact that our sources mention only odd cuts being sold by the butcher, and that in the fantasy feasts of comedy, the menu does not contain anything that "must be taken as the kind of meats usually consumed at sacrifices." (p.87)9

R. envisages two classes of markets, one for oxen, dominated by the polis, the other for sheep, goats and piglets, dominated by the smaller subunits. The argument begins from the observation that the price of an ox varied greatly in the different documents, whereas that of a sheep, goat, or piglet stayed relatively constant. Based on the documents used in Chap.1 and R.'s distinction of the two types of polis sacrifices, most of the second group of victims (roughly five-sixths) were sacrificed in the subunits of the polis while oxen were more often sacrificed by the polis (four-fifths, p.104).10 R. explains the constancy of sheep/goat prices by envisioning each individual deme using the same few suppliers year after year with established personal relationships between purchaser and supplier (p.104).11 In contrast, the polis required a much larger number of animals and the officials in charge of purchase changed annually; consequently, there wa s no personal relationship between the purchaser and the buyer -- all of which might account for the variability of oxen price. I do not know enough about economics to judge this argument, but I do wonder why it does not lead to a variety of price with the 500 goats. Also, there is no guarantee that deme officials in charge of purchasing performed their duties for more than one year.12

Chap.3 concentrates on funds used for the purchase of the animals. On the polis level, R. begins with an examination of the boonai. In the dermatikon accounts, they handed over the money from the Dionysia in Piraeus (334/3), the City Dionysia (334/3), sacrifices to Zeus Soter (334/3), and the Asklepieia (332/1). R. assumes, because of the meaning of the name boonai, that they also purchased oxen for these four festivals. R. argues further that it is possible that the boonai purchased oxen for all the festivals listed in the dermatikon accounts not just the ones for which they handled the money, since it is possible that the officials who purchased the oxen were not the ones who handed over the money. But logically this should exclude the boonai, too.

For the actual funds used to purchase the victims, R. eliminates the possibility of a liturgy since he believes, contra Dem. Against Meidias, that the boonai were chosen by lot, because they served as assistants to the hieropoioi (IG II2 334) whom the Ath. Pol. says were chosen by lot (even though this argument does not hold for the strategoi, who seem to have shared the management of the Dionysia in Peiraeus with the boonai). In any case, the office was most likely non-litourgic, since in the dermatikon accounts for 334/3, the boonai handed over/back the money left over from their purchase for the Dionysia in Peiraeus. R. then looks to Dem. 24.96ff. which says that tax money was spent for sacrifices, and to Isokrates Areop. 29, which says the patrioi thusiai were funded from rentals, and he concludes that the sacrifices in Dem. 24.96ff. must refer to the epithetoi heortai, and so all and only patrioi thusiai were funded from the rentals of sacred temene, while the epithetoi thusiai came out of the general budget. R. cites as support for this the lack of evidence attesting transactions concerning the epithetoi heortai, since they were routine and thus not recorded. (p.117) He suggests that in IG II2 334, the 41 mnae of rentals used to fund a sacrifice of oxen at the Panathenaia does not concern the regular hekatomb and therefore does not invalidate the strict division. But the contrary seems more likely, since by R.'s definition, this sacrifice should be counted as an epithetos heorte, since it is part of the Panathenaia and the meat from it is distributed to the Athenians "just as in the other meat-distributions" (IG II2 334.25).

On the level of the demes, R. sees two ways of financing the sacrifices: either the deme imposed a direct litourgy on the well-to-do of its members, illustrated by Erchia, or used the proceeds from rentals of sacred lands. There are many documents concerning such rentals, most of them for a term of ten years or more, some even for perpetuity.

The three chapters are supplemented by 8 notes, "Age terms for animals," "The sacrifices in IG I3 137 and IG I3 82," "The value of ox hides," "How much meat?", "Animals from abroad," "Nikomakhos' 'new' sacrifices," "Sacrificing working animals," "Taxes for religious purposes." An index is lacking.

Inscriptions while enticingly practical are at the same time so fixed spatially and temporally as to be largely inscrutable in isolation. R.'s synoptic approach offers a possible solution but inevitably requires choices and further choices so that the parts may ultimately be more important than the sum. Indeed it would be hard to summarize all of the many topics discussed in this book and the insights they provide into the details of Athenian animal sacrifice, such as the status of the people who rented the sacred lands and the age of the sacrificed animals, to mention only two. While not absolutely correct in all his details,13 R. is refreshingly open about his method and his evidence and his attempt to provide range of figures instead of generalities is helpful, though needing the many qualifications provided to avoid misleading the reader.


  • [1] In Chap.2 this exclusion is expanded to "lambs, kids and piglets" (p.75) without explanation.
  • [2] Examples of multiple sacrifices to the same deity on the same date include 21 Hek, Artemis, 5 Boe Epops, 8 Gam Apollo Apotropaios.
  • [3] On page 22, paragraph 1, for Thargelion read Hekatombaion.
  • [4] R. seems to have missed the goat to Artemis Hekate on 16th Metageitnion (which would increase his number by one) and the ram to Hermes on 4th Thargelion (which would not).
  • [5] Here (p.34) he says Erchia sacrificed on at least 17 days, in contrast to 21 earlier (p.18), hence the low average.
  • [6] This seems very tentative as R. himself notes -- how do we know this is the Tetrapolis calendar? How much is lost? Although this calendar and the Marathon deme calendar are on the same stone, the sacrifices on this calendar are not followed by provisions for hierosyna.
  • [7] This is only a partial calendar, thus the number is certainly on the low side.
  • [8] R.'s division of public sacrifices into two types, the first including the patrioi thusiai and the second the epithetoi heortai, rests chiefly on Isokrate's Areop. 29 and Ath. Pol. 3.3. (p.47ff.) There are several objections both to seeing this distinction as more than rhetorical and to R.'s application of it to specific festivals. The Isokrates passage does not present this distinction in a straight-forward fashion. The two pairs in contrast are ad hoc sacrifices vs. patrioi thusiai, and epithetoi heortai vs. the most holy of rites. Unless we are to see the Athenians performing the epithetoi heortai whenever they please, there is no reason to see a contrast between patrioi thusiai and epithetoi heortai here. Furthermore, R.'s identification of the patrioi thusiai with the sacrifices on the calendar of Nikomachos is weakened by Lys. 30.19 which implies that some sacrifices on Nikomachos' calendar can be perceived as non-ancestral. Also Lys. 26.6 ("... if you disqualify him, the ancestral rites [TA\ PA/TRIA I(ERA/] shall go unsacrificed.... For tomorrow is the last day of the year, on which sacrifice is offered to Zeus Soter") argues against the identification of the sacrifices on the dermatikon accounts with the epithetoi heortai, since the sacrifice to Zeus Soter is among those listed in the dermatikon accounts.
  • [9] Yet Alexis Frag. 110.15-16 mentions liver, which is an important part of the splanchna.
  • [10] The exact numbers (minimum per year) are: for the polis, 873 oxen, 500 goats; for the three demes together, 9 oxen, 106.5 sheep and goats.
  • [11] By R.'s calculation, 3-5 herds could supply ca. 40 animals per year.
  • [12] The five litourgists who paid for the Erchia sacrifice probably changed from year to year. IG II2 1203 honors six individuals who were "merarchai in the archonship of Antikleios" for their service in supervising sacrifices.
  • [13] Cf. n.3,4 above and also Thorikos Thargelion, 5 sheep not 6 (p.27); Skirophorion (3), 1 sheep and 1 lamb not 2 sheep (p.27); "Marathon, ..., offering no goats" (p.35) vs. Elaph. (1) "1 goat" (p.33); dermatikon accounts (p.50ff.): Hek (1) 710dr3ob not 713dr; Boed (1) 414dr3ob not 414dr; Skiro (1) 2610dr3ob not 2613dr; p.53, n. 112, read 333/2 for 332/1.